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Symbols no secret to young Catholics


A the alarm sounded, cheers went up from my students. Unable to avoid or dismiss the fire drill, I said to them, “All right, last one out please close the windows. Don’t forget our spot is in the back of the parking lot. If you get lost, just look for Josh. And no talking on your way out.”

Walking outside I muttered under my breath, “Just what I need, another interruption!” Yet I dutifully accompanied 25 young men outside on a beautiful afternoon for the fire drill. After a few minutes, we made our way back inside. As I am apt to do, I leisurely strolled through the lot, making note of the various kinds of cars the students drive. Trust me, it’s an easy way to be humbled. One bumper sticker, or should I say symbol, caught my eye. It was the Playboy bunny.

Getting back to class, I told them about my recent discovery, to which I added, “Who in his right mind would put that on the back of his car?” To my surprise they pointed to Nick. I said, “From all that we’ve talked about this year, knowing what you know, what are you doing with that sticker on your bumper?”

Nick responded, “It’s no big deal, it’s just a sticker. It doesn’t mean anything.”

“Just sexism and the objectification of women,” I said.

At moments like these, I’m tempted to summarize the grandly fulfilling enterprise of religious education with the damning phrase: “Pearls before swine.” But I resist. I know better, much better.

Though they don’t recognize it and name it as such, the students I teach are very much in touch with the symbolic, or sacramental, principle of Catholicism: how the supposedly distant, invisible and infinite God can be made personal, visible and concrete through what are ordinary actions, signs and words.

Though Nick and other students like him try to deny it, their Catholic DNA is so saturated with this sense they couldn’t lose it even if they tried. Losing their faith is another story.

About a week later, Nick came to class with his head shaved. I jokingly asked him if he’d joined an anti-government militia or was planning on starting a skinhead youth group here at school. Much to my surprise and admiration he told me his aunt’s hair had fallen out as a result of her cancer treatments. Having seen some students do it the year before for a friend who had melanoma, Nick decided to shave his head to show solidarity with his aunt. Moved by his example, his older brother Jeff, never one to take after his younger brother, followed suit.

As he left class he even commented, “Yeh, Mr. Daley, you’d be interested to know I was washing my car last weekend and I scraped off that sticker.” What could I do but smile and pat him on the back?

I’ve heard many people lament the religious illiteracy of today’s youth, but I’m not so sure. I think a lot more has to do with the question of religious relevance. As recent events suggest, the church at the highest levels has betrayed some of its core symbols --the cross, Eucharist, priesthood, reconciliation. How can we expect our youth to embrace our symbols when we ourselves don’t? Not only have some not lived up to these symbols of our faith, but they have exploited and manipulated them. It’s not so much my students who suffer from a symbolic or sacramental amnesia as it is their elders. They don’t so much lose this imagination as craft their own symbols after seeing how symbols are used or abused by the leaders within their own faith tradition.

A while later, Paul came to see and told me he wasn’t going to be there the next couple of days because he was going to a retreat. He was decked out in his Sunday finest. “What are you dressed so nicely for? Do you have to go before the disciplinary board?” I asked. He smiled, then very seriously told me he was dressed up for his sister. It was the anniversary of her death.

She’d been raped and murdered 10 years ago to the day. Never one to say it in words, his finely combed hair, nicely knotted tie, pressed jacket and pressed slacks communicated a deep love for his sister.

Again I was convinced they get it; they’ve never lost it. If we walked in their shoes more often we’d see it. I’m more worried about people like myself, who would rather teach about our faith than live it. I am thankful that I have my students to correct me. I offer them to you as well.

Michael J. Daley teaches theology at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati.

National Catholic Reporter, April 5, 2002